Storm the final hurdle in Sharks' quest for history


Melbourne Storm stand in the path of Cronulla Sharks as rugby league's perennial underdogs seek to end their long wait for NRL glory in the grand final on Sunday.

Minor premiership winners in 1999 and beaten grand finalists in 1973, 1978 and 1997, the Sharks have staged a remarkable recovery to reach the competition's decider this season, having finished with the wooden spoon in 2014 following an Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) investigation into the use of banned supplements at the club.

Completing the fairy tale at ANZ Stadium will be no small task, with the star-studded Storm, who topped the table this season, a daunting final obstacle.

Indeed, Cronulla coach Shane Flanagan cited the powerhouse team from Victoria as role models for the Sharks as they sought to rebuild from scandal and disruption. 

"For me, when we used to talk about clubs two years ago, where we wanted to be as a club, Melbourne Storm were one of the clubs we looked at," he said.

"I know the way [Storm coach] Craig [Bellamy] operates and for me, they've been the most consistent year after year."

The Sharks, though, do not have a monopoly on redemption as the motivation for success. Storm were notoriously stripped of their 2007 and 2009 premierships after a salary cap breach was uncovered in 2010.

They have since won the minor premiership in 2011 and the grand final in 2012, but the shadow of that disgrace continues to loom over the team, something alluded to by Flanagan. 

"They've had some competitions taken off them but that doesn't take away from the football team they put out on the park," the Sharks coach said.

Storm's veteran captain Cameron Smith, addressing the media in Sydney this week, acknowledged the groundswell of support behind the Sharks and the potential for it to distract both sets of players.

"Our approach is not about being the party poopers, it's about playing against a very good football side and us preparing well," he said.

"It all comes down to who has the best game of footy on Sunday, that is all it comes down to in a Grand Final.

"We understand the story of the Cronulla Sharks and their club, they've been waiting a long time to win a premiership but for us we don't take that into account. Our focus is purely on us and our preparation and making sure we are ready to go on Sunday."

While the Sharks would be popular winners, recent history is firmly in Storm's favour, Bellamy's team having romped to a 26-6 win at home to Cronulla in the final week of the regular season.

If the underdogs are to spring a surprise and hand the retiring Michael Ennis the perfect send-off, they will need the power of Andrew Fifita, Matt Prior and captain Paul Gallen to overcome the brains of Smith and fellow veteran Cooper Cronk, while Storm will look to maximise the threat posed by try machine Suliasi Vunivalu.